For men are good in but one way, but bad in many.


Tolstoy’s great novel, Anna Karenina, opens with the famous line, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Tolstoy’s point is that a happy marriage depends on a long lists of variables: mutual attraction, agreement about finances, parenting, religion, in-laws and many other crucial respects. You might have everything else in your favour, but if any one of these vital ingredients is missing, or out of kilter, happiness is doomed.

This is the Anna Karenina Principle: A deficiency in any one of a number of factors will doom an enterprise to fail, meaning that success is dependent on every possible deficiency being avoided.* As it is with marriage, so it is with schools. All successful schools are alike; each unsuccessful school is unsuccessful in its own way.

To be successful, a school must fulfil a various essential criteria:

  • Great exam results
  • Good behaviour
  • A broad, rich curriculum
  • A wide range of extra curricular provision
  • A culture where it’s ‘cool to be clever’
  • Well run pastoral systems
  • A sense of its position in the community
  • A focus on developing and supporting staff
  • Intelligent accountability systems
  • A belief in the potential of all students

There are, I’m sure, others I haven’t considered.

If you get one of these wrong, the school will not be successful. If results are good, but the curriculum is narrow, children will be deprived something essential. If behaviour is good, but no sees the point in trying hard, then something won’t work. If the academic curriculum is good, but there’s not much on offer besides that, children’s experiences will be limited. If staff feel overworked and unsupported, something, somewhere will give. You could, I think, make the case that if schools get any of the items on the list wrong, success suffers.

All successful schools are similar in that pay attention to everything. Schools may well be brilliant at a few of these things, but if anything’s missing, they won’t be successful. That’s not to say that school leaders should just ‘do’ everything on the list. I suspect somethings need to be in place to allow others to occur. Systems probably have to come first. Behaviour has be right before you can tackle culture. Staff need to feel supported before you can start holding them to account on being their best. And so on.

This may seem like a dauntingly high bar. Take comfort from the obvious fact that no schools is perfect. To be successful a school doesn’t have to be excellent (or ‘outstanding’) at everything. I go so far as to say it doesn’t have to be excellent at anything, it just has to be good enough at everything.

The takeaway: don’t try to be special, unique or distinctive, try to be like every other successful school.

* The principle comes from Jared Diamond’s excellent book, Guns, Germs and Steel: A short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years.